by Kimberly Belmonte

 Okay, let’s have moment of honesty—who’s hoping for the next President of the United States to be a woman?  I’ll confess, I totally am!  But in preparation for the 2016 election, I think we need to tell our media to clean up its act! During the 2008 presidential campaign when Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton got a lot of media attention for the wrong reasons.  It seemed like every day they were talking about her haircut, choice of clothes, or her figure, instead of, oh, I don’t know… her position on healthcare, or National Security.  The case with Republican hopeful Sarah Palin was no different.  Politics aside, both candidates experienced an undue focus on their appearance by the media.  Media critics have said that all this focus on hair and nails can discredit a candidate, preventing others from taking her too seriously.

Thinking about these problems with sexism in the media got me wondering about the consequences of focusing so much on women’s appearance.  Objectification theory[1] poses that in Western cultures, a woman’s worth is based on her appearance.  The problem with objectifying women is that if someone is an object (i.e., something to be looked at) they aren’t a subject (i.e., a whole person with thoughts, feelings etc.).  Some recent blogs by our savvy team of SPARK research bloggers have focused on how self-objectifying (e.g., thinking about your own body as an object) can hurt girls and women by decreasing their ability to think, leading to disordered eating or a diminished ability to understand their bodies.  Unfortunately, living in a culture like ours not only makes women objectify their own bodies, but can make men and women objectify others’ bodies too. We might not want to admit it, but since our society teaches us that appearance is what matters, it’s often what we focus on – even when we don’t mean to.  So I can’t help but wonder what happens to the way we think about someone if we focus so much on that person’s appearance?

Researchers Nathan A. Heflick, Jamie L. Goldenberg, Douglas P. Cooper, and Elisa Puvia[2] had a similar question about how focusing on appearance is related to perceptions of humanity or “humanness.”  Heflick explained that certain traits like warmth (e.g., likability, kindness), morality (e.g., trustworthiness, sincerity) and competence are associated with our perceptions of what it means to be human.   While obviously, we don’t think of non-human inanimate objects—like crayons or jellybeans—as being moral or competent (just colorful and/or delicious!), they wanted to know how focusing on a person’s appearance might affect our perceptions of those traits.

And so the question of the day becomes, what do the Obamas, newscasters Brian Williams, Robin Meade, and a few Southern weather forecasters all have in common?  No, it’s not a bad joke; this cast of characters is all part of Heflick’s clever three-part study to examine the relationship between appearance and humanity. Here’s the clever part: he had participants look at images or YouTube videos of male or female public figures and asked them to either focus on a person’s performance or their physical appearance.  After they saw the image/video participants were asked to rate the person on levels of warmth, morality and competence.

In their first study, they had college students watch a short YouTube clip of the male newscaster, Brian Williams (dressed in a suit), or the female newscaster, Robin Meade (dressed in a non-revealing top).  In their second study, participants looked at a photo of Barack Obama (dressed in a suit) or of Michelle Obama (dressed in a non-revealing dress) [3].  In the third study, to account for attractiveness (I mean, Barack and Michelle are a good-looking couple) and familiarity (because who doesn’t know the First Family?), they showed participants YouTube videos of “attractive” and “unattractive” out-of-state male and female weather forecasters.  Across all three studies when participants focused on the appearance of the women (rather than each woman’s performance), they rated them lower in warmth, competence and morality.  There was no change in ratings when participants focused on the appearance of the men and there was no relationship with attractiveness.

So, what do these three studies tell us? Often when we talk about objectification it is in relation to sexualization, but these studies just asked participants to focus on appearance in general. In all of the images Heflick used, women were dressed conservatively, in modest attire.  This shows us that it’s the emphasis on how girls and women look that’s really problematic, even when that emphasis doesn’t involve sexualization.  Excessive focus on appearance makes people perceive others as not only less warm, moral and competent, but maybe even as less human.

Not only that, but focusing on appearance, rather than performance or the whole person leads to decreased perceptions of traits that are considered “essentially human” but only in women, not in men.  This fits with objectification theory that predicts that women’s bodies (but not men’s) are always evaluated, scrutinized and potentially objectified.  Objectification is—by definition—skin deep. When focusing only on how people look, we seem to underestimate how much people can feel (and do).  So what does this mean for the 2016 presidential election? Let’s just say we that regardless of who’s at the front of the political campaign trail (Hillary Clinton or Kirsten Gillibrand?), let’s focus on their politics, not their outfits!


[1] Fredrickson & Roberts (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.

[2] Heflick, N.A., Goldenberg, J. A., Cooper, D. P., Puvia, E. (2011). From women to objects: Appearance focus, target gender, and perceptions of warmth, morality and competence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 572–581

[3] Yes, Heflick et al (2011) did control for folks’ political opinions.